How To Find A Culturally Sensitive Therapist
When you hear the word “therapist,” the first image that pops up might be a quiet old man sitting on a couch, taking notes with his pen. Or you may imagine a white woman on an ottoman, a woven shawl wrapped around her shoulders, listening closely to the person sitting across from her.
In our images of therapists, the image that pops up is overwhelmingly white.
And that could make many People of Color shrink from the idea of seeing a shrink! In collectivist cultures, telling a stranger your personal problems seems strange and wrong. The lack of representation and the cultural stigma surrounding therapy doesn’t even touch on the internal issues, namely the lack of culturally sensitive therapists.
But what is a culturally sensitive therapist and why does it matter? And how can you find the right one for you?
What Does It Mean To Be A Culturally Sensitive Therapist?
According to Psychology Today, a culturally-sensitive therapist understands and accounts for their client’s background, ethnicity, and belief system during therapy. It is a matter of respecting the client’s differences and accommodating them. This includes knowing how their race, age, socioeconomic status, citizenship status, gender, and sexuality interact with treatment.
When a therapist is culturally-sensitive, they’ll customize your therapy plan according to what is doable for you. For example, people from South Asia, like many POC, have a collectivist mindset. Community matters. A therapist that is oblivious to this mindset may tell a client to simply cut off certain family members.
However, individuals in this position know “canceling” your family is nearly impossible. It isn’t impossible because the client is afraid of cutting off family members, but because collectivism shrouds everything. A client wouldn’t just cut off one family member, but possibly other members, non-family community members, traditions, and cultural practices. It’s a detrimental domino effect.
A culturally sensitive therapist, meanwhile, would work with the client on healing alongside their cultural norms. Instead of cutting off family members, a therapist may advise creating a bridge of communication or making peace with the situation. Cultural norms are too large and too historic to replace in a day, but the individual work gets closer to change each and every day.
Why Does Finding A Culturally Sensitive Therapist Matter?
When you feel seen or understood by someone, you immediately build a sense of trust. Think of your go-to beautician. They know the best way to style you because they either a) share your features or b) learned how to work with your features to make you look your best! Finding a culturally sensitive therapist is very similar.
In a study focusing on Latino clients in therapy, researchers found clients perceived their therapists as distant because the caregiver didn’t share anything about their personal lives. Therapists are usually neutral and don’t share much of their personal lives. The exchange of personal information, however, is important to collectivist cultures such as Latino communities. By disclosing personal information, those therapists would have built a better sense of trust and connection with their client, allowing the client to open up more. If a therapist understands your cultural background and works with you rather than fights it, trust blossoms. Treatment becomes more effective!
A culturally sensitive therapist not only makes therapy better, but it makes it bearable. It is exhausting as People of Color to explain, again and again, the challenges that come with a cultural or generational upbringing. Being a first-generation immigrant, for example, has many shared experiences, such as being the mediator between parents and American society in language, culture, and traditions. Having to explain these challenges to multiple people takes up valuable time in a session. A culturally sensitive therapist would have a baseline idea of where their client is coming from, only asking questions that address an individuals’ unique experiences.
How Can You Find A Culturally Competent Therapist?
Finding a therapist, for the most part, is difficult. Finding one that is culturally competent is yet another layer. But once you find the right therapist for you, your sessions become a prized “me-time” on your calendar.
Don’t just look!
The saying goes, “Do not judge a book by its cover,” and it applies in every aspect of our lives! In this case, don’t draw the line because a therapist doesn’t look exactly like you. Your ideal therapist maybe someone who has the same skin tone and facial features, but not the same ethnic and cultural background. On the flip side, your therapist could look nothing like you but is still a Person of Color. Or your ideal therapist doesn’t have to be a POC, so long as they are culturally sensitive.
Take a dive into their profile
Look at their credentials—are their studies focused on relationships and family? Adolescence and childhood? Did they also study ethnic classes at their college? If you look through their educational and clinical experiences, you can make a general picture of their knowledge before you even get to meet them. You’ll learn if they have the background that best works with your experiences.
Trial and Error
If you have the resources, the best way to find your therapist is through trial and error. Create a list of the therapists that fit your criterion and have a session with the first on that list. Keep going down until someone sticks!
You finally have a session—now what?
You want to make sure that the therapist will really work with you and your needs, especially if you’re coming with cultural issues to address. Here are some questions to get you started:
- Do you have experience treating people with my identity or cultural background?
- What training have you had in cultural competency?
- Do you have familiarity with my culture’s attitudes toward mental health treatment?
- Are you willing to learn about aspects of my culture and identity that you aren’t familiar with?
- How would you include my identity, race, age, religion, gender identity, etc. in my care and treatment plan?
By asking these questions and choosing a therapist that is right for you, you’ll find therapy isn’t what you see in movies. It’s what you’ll want to see for the rest of your life.
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